I am blessed to have several good friends of many diverse backgrounds and orientations—racial, religious, sexual, etc.
And I am grateful for all of them and their different viewpoints. I learn so much from each and every one of them.
One day, I was telling a good friend about how badly I had been treated in an upscale store:
I don’t have money to burn in such stores, but I was armed that day with the knowledge of a great sale and a coupon in hand that had been mailed to me by the store. Unfortunately, upon my arrival, I was completely snubbed.
I entered the store when no one else was shopping. You could have heard crickets there, if it had not been for the three sales people cheerfully chatting amongst themselves.
This went on for a good 15 minutes or so without even a hello to me, while I desperately looked for my Amazonian size 12—apparently not kept on the sales floor to make room for more appealing, smaller sizes.
And then it happened: nicely dressed, petite women came in through the door and the banter stopped immediately as the salespeople suddenly found a job to do!
No one helped me that day until I specifically approached a salesperson on my own, and sheepishly asked for help after they were done with their obviously preferred customers.
I asked if they had the certain skirt, that was on sale that I had come for in the back or the store. If so, I explained that I wanted to buy it using my coupon. You would have thought the world had stopped spinning from the horrified look on the salesperson’s face! And what she said next was not complimentary.
This occurrence (plus a few previous ones) led me to complain to higher levels within the company. Although the employees at the corporate level tried to right the wrong, I am still not treated well in the store and have decided that I won’t be going back again.
To get on with the real point of the story—when I told my friend about the experience, she said to me that she was happy for me. She was glad that I had been born with the white skin that I have and therefore had the privilege to complain in the fashion that I did.
She went on to explain that she she did not feel that she had this right for herself.
I tried to tell her, to debate with her, that of course she had the right, but she persisted in telling me this was something that I would just have to take her word on, as she was not born into a place of mind or actual reality of having the same kind of privileges that I have.
I was taken aback and felt awfully that I had tried to argue her truth away from her several times. Who was I to disrespect what she had known and lived as her truth throughout her life?
At that time I still did not completely understand her feelings (how could I?), but I did know that I would not argue with another person in that way again and tell them that they should feel in any certain way other than the way that they do. The conversation, on the whole, made me feel sad and embarrassed by my ignorance that I wasn’t aware I possessed. I also wish I had used my ears more than my big mouth that day.
Fast forward to a few months later and another friend of mine (of a different race and religion) shared a link on Facebook. She always shares quality stories, so I clicked the link to read the story, which happened to be about inequality.
Part of the story was about fortune cookies and mentioned the old joke about adding the words “in bed” to your fortune. As in, “You will have prosperous and numerous friendships in the month ahead—in bed.” But there was a twist to this particular story.
This story talked of adding the words “if you are a white male” to your fortune.
Maybe something like, “Go for the gold today! You will be the champion of whatever you set your mind to—if you are a white male.”
Or, “Opportunity knocks on your door every day. Answer it—if you are a white male.”
When I read about this seemingly simple little fortune cookie game, I had a big epiphany. I could relate to this all too well and it really hit home.
While the ‘in bed’ game had been funny, the ‘if you are a white male‘ game did not feel like a game at all. Instead, it felt like the huge reality check that I had desperately needed a few months back but was finally getting that day.
I experienced both a mental reaction of shock and physical ones of nausea and the chills all over my lily white skin. However, the most profound reaction was the one that took place in my heart. I had come to a new understanding about how people of minority groups were affected at a much deeper level than I had previously realized.
Reading that story left me with butterflies in the pit of my stomach, but more importantly it shook up my heart and soul’s understanding of how my friend had been feeling that day, months before, when I had debated her truth with her. I now knew a little more of what my dear black friend had been talking about when she spoke of me having the birthright of ‘white privilege’ to complain in this country.
That moment hit me like a ton of bricks and I could feel her words sinking in as I finally understood more about what she had said. I felt stunned with the enormity of the lesson.
I thought about the disparity between the amount of money that women make for doing the same jobs that men do. I thought about my gay friends who are not born with the right to be married in all states in this country. I now have a better understanding of how all of the ways that I have felt discriminated against as a woman can be amplified several times over for people in populations that are seen as less by many others in our society.
I also felt embarrassed and ashamed about having tried to convince my black friend that she was, in fact, equal—she may be equal in my eyes, but not so much in America’s society.
How badly I felt for the words I had spoken to her.
I finally realized that If she had complained in that store, it’s almost certain that she would have been completely shut down. In fact, her unspoken message to me was that this had probably happened to her already (many times) and so she just knew to not go there in her life. I now understand that a complaint would just be inviting trouble and a bad outcome, and what intelligent person, such as my friend, would want to bring that upon themselves?
My bet is that she had learned throughout her life that it is just not worth her time to try and make things better, only to have a door shut yet again in her face. And I would have felt the same way if that had been my experience.
My friend is one smart lady, and even though she is pleasantly feisty in spirit, it became painfully obvious that she has learned not to invite being let down by simply wanting to be treated decently. If the sales clerk was rude to me that day, there is no telling what would have happened to my black friend.
This makes me sad. It makes me sick. It makes me want to scream and stomp my feet.
But then I think that I don’t want to be an angry, sick, foot-stomping person! Better to be mindful and write about it. To possibly open even one person’s eyes to what minority populations may be internally (or openly) battling against and hoping that this brings more of us together on a healing path.
This is my wish. My hope. My dream.
I will also be making a phone call to apologize for my words that day. Even though I had the best of intentions, what I said and how I said it was unacceptable. I hope she will forgive me.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman